Dog brings hope
To look at 16-year-old Meredith Butenhoff, one would think that she’s the picture of health. The pretty blonde high school student from Greenville has a ready smile and speaks with a soft melodic voice that belies the fact she suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDH), a condition that causes chronic fatigue, dizziness, and joint pain.
Meredith was diagnosed with EDH at the age of 11 and she, along with her family, have been courageously battling the syndrome and endeavoring to lead as normal a life as possible ever since. About three years ago, a ray of hope came into their lives in the shape of a dog.
While the family was attending a medical conference, they learned about Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services or PAALS, a South Carolina based organization that trains and places assistant service dogs with individuals such as Meredith who need help with daily tasks that the average person takes for granted.
“Most people don’t think twice about things like turning on a light switch or opening a door, but these are things that are a real challenge to our clients,” said Jennifer Rogers, PAALS executive director. “We train our dogs to do up to 70 behaviors that can assist people with a variety of disabilities so they can live more independent and enriched lives.”
The dogs are chosen as puppies, and they go through a rigid selection process before the training even begins, Rogers said.
“We have to evaluate each dog individually for personality traits and health issues before we can accept them into our program,” she said.
And not all dogs make it into the training.
“We look for things like the dog’s ability to focus, to remember commands, and, of course, they can’t have any health problems. We mainly look for hip and joint issues because the dogs will need to be strong enough to help their people stand and walk in some cases.”
The application process for obtaining a PAALS dog is arduous as well.
“A lot of times the person wanting a dog expects more than the dog is capable of doing,” Rogers said. “And each case is based on the individual and his/her personal needs. A person in a wheelchair with little or no mobility would need more from the service dog for instance than someone who has good upper body strength.”
In Meredith’s case, EDS causes lightheadedness and low energy, so she needs a dog to help her balance, stand, or go for help in case she were to fall. She has been matched with a black lab named Sami and has been training with him for several weeks. Sami’s support will allow Meredith an independence she hasn’t had before and increase her activity level as well as provide the unconditional love that is so important when the flare-ups come, and she is suffering and in pain.
“Sometimes, even though the person is hurting, having the dog there can be a tremendous comfort,” Rogers said.
“We explored getting a service dog when Mered- ith was first diagnosed,” said Tracy Butenhoff, Meredith’s mother. “ We went to all sorts of medical conferences to try to learn as much as we could about EDS. It was at one of those conferences that I heard about PAALS and contacted Jennifer.” ( Jennifer Rogers)
Once the forms were filled out by the Butenhoffs and interviews were completed and Meredith was deemed a candidate for a service dog, then came the process of matching the person with the dog. It’s a process that can be difficult, Butenhoff said.
“Meredith worked with another dog before Sami, but unfortunately that dog’s focus wasn’t what it should have been,” Butenhoff said. “He would get excited when other dogs were around, and if he were to do that while Meredith was leaning on him, she could be injured.”
Rogers said when the dogs don’t work out, it can be heartbreaking.
“After a person is matched up with a dog, they train together, and, of course, they love one another. If for some reason, the dog proves to be not the right dog for that person or if the person’s condition worsens, it is really a hard thing for both of them to separate.”
The dogs used in the program can vary, but most are Labradors or Retrievers, Rogers said.
“Most of our clients need the larger dogs, but we also use Labordoodles, and we’re looking into Standard Poodles since they are hypoallergenic.”
The dogs are trained from puppies and PAALS follows each one from its beginning of training to retirement, Rogers said.
“We usually place the dogs at two-or three-yearsold, and they typically work for eight to ten years. Once they are retired, the client can choose to keep them as a pet or we then find them a home ourselves. We always follow our dogs to make sure they are well cared for and loved.”
Each dog, once matched up with its human, will be trained additionally for the person’s exact needs.
“Sami will become Meredith’s partner,” Rogers said. “He will turn on lights for her, open doors, pick up things she drops and can’t reach, and get her help from a human if the need arises.”
The dogs get lots of down time and one of the requirements of having a service dog is that the dog will be cared for, exercised, and played with, either by its owner or family members and friends.
But once the training vests are put on, the dogs know it’s time to go to work.
In a recent training day in Northeast Columbia, Sami was working with Meredith, and both were being coached by Rogers. He went through his paces of turning light switches on and off and learning how to open a door. He also was shown what to do in an emergency situation.
In one training exercise, Meredith puts her hands in the air and says, “Sami help!” The dog immediately runs to Rogers and begins to bark and jump and run back and forth in Meredith’s direction until Rogers follows him.
“He will be trained to go to each family member in the event that Meredith needs them,” Rogers said. “He’ll make sure that someone comes to her aide quickly.”
PAALS is a local South Carolina charity and a non-profit organization. All of PAALS’ assistance dogs in training are still looking for financial support as each dog costs between $22,000 and $29,000 to train, based on specific needs. PAALS does not require its teammates to cover this amount but encourages them to participate in fundraising to cover the cost of the classes they need to attend once their dog is fully trained. PAALS is the only Assistance Dog International (ADI) accredited program based in South Carolina.
For the Butenhoffs, finding PAALS and having Sami become a part of their lives was an answer to their prayers, said Meredith’s mother.
“PAALS has been amazing to work with,” Butenhoff said. “Jen and everyone we have worked with have such a heart for people and animals. It has been a true blessing for Meredith and for our family.”
PAALS’ mission is to enrich and empower children and adults with physical disabilities and social needs by training service animals and providing animal assisted educational and recreational activities. To learn more about how you can become a part of this organization, please visit the website at www.paals.org or call (803) 788-7063.